NJ Transit – Railroading in the age of Sea Level Rise

Satellite image of New York Metro region at night
Satellite view of New York metropolitan region at night

The New York Metropolitan region is cut in half by the Hudson River which runs north-south through the region’s center (see satellite view above). Of the region’s +20 million residents, 1.6 million commute into Manhattan, the region’s core, from surrounding districts. Of those, about 400,000 must cross the Hudson every week day from New Jersey, the west side of the river, by rail, road, or ferry. When Hurricane Sandy blew in from the Atlantic October 2012, the cross-Hudson mass transit pathways were knocked completely out of commission for more than a week. Repairs to flood damaged tunnels continue to this day.

New York’s subway system (MTA), and the PATH rail system that carries about 60% of New Jersey’s Manhattan-bound commuters, were back in business within 2 to 3 weeks. By comparison, the New Jersey transit system struggled for 3 months to get back on its wheels. Why? According to a post-Sandy investigation by WNYC (NY Public Radio), the NJ Transit officials had no plan to deal with the storm surge caused by Sandy because they failed to appreciate the effect global warming is having on storm size. In the days leading up to Sandy, the National Weather Service repeatedly warned of storm tides of up to 15 feet. Yet NJ Transit officials paid no attention.

Believing they knew from past experience how to keep their equipment dry, the NJ Transit officials decided to park much of their rolling stock in two rail yards that forecasters had predicted would flood: the Meadowlands maintenance yard and the Hoboken yard (see map below). The storm surge flooded both yards, seriously damaging about 70 locomotives and 260 rail cars, roughly a third of the corporation’s fleet. Compare that to New York’s MTA which  lost only about 20 of its 8,000 rail cars during the same storm, even though all of its Lower Manhattan subway tunnels south of 34th Street were flooded.

Map showing areas of NYC and NJ flooded by Sandy
Areas flooded by Sandy. NJT train yard locations marked in red. Image: nichiusa.org

The Meadowlands yard is a 78-acre site in Kearny surrounded by wetlands where the Passaic River joins the Hackensack River — a natural flood plain. The yard contains the corporation’s maintenance facilities, indoor equipment storage buildings, training center, and the transit system’s operations center. The storm surge flooded the yard to a depth of 8 feet, damaging everything it touched.

Photo of NJ Transit Meadowlands Rail yard
NJ Transit Meadowlands rail yard looking east. Manhattan skyline in the distance. Image: Google

Asked to explain NJ Transit’s storm preparations at a State Assembly committee hearing some months later, Jim Weinstein, the corporation’s executive director at the time, said: “I can tell you decisions on where to keep our locomotives were sound, based on all the information we had at the time . . . The facts are the weather models we evaluated at the time had an 80 to 90 percent chance the rail yards would stay dry. Our decisions were informed by the fact that neither of those rail yards had ever flooded. It is entirely wrong to characterize them as flood-prone.”

An article published by the Union of Concerned Scientists titled ‘Protecting New Jersey from Sea Level Rise: the future of the Meadowlands’ has this to say: “If emissions continue to rise through the end of the century, sea level is projected to rise more than 6 feet by 2100. In this scenario, the same areas of northern New Jersey and New York City that we’re flooded by Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge would be inundated more than 26 times per year, or every other week on average.” And that statement has nothing to say about what future storms coupled with rising sea level will do in the interim.

Northern New Jersey is a heavily urbanized/industrialized region dependent on a fantastically complex network of roads and railways. The number of elevated sections, bridges, underpasses and overpasses are too many to count. Three of the state’s largest city’s, Newark, Jersey City, and Elizabeth, as well as Newark International Airport, are all located on or surrounded by low-lying, flood prone real estate. And then there’s the Meadowlands, now only a remnant of its previous size. The Meadowlands, a stretch of wetlands, shows just how low-lying the region really is, and how difficult, perhaps impossible, it’s going to be to protect it from the encroaching sea.

Satellite view of New Jersey metro region
Satellite view of New Jersey Metro region. Image: Google

The following snapshot shows a portion of the Meadowlands as seen from the I-95 Highway which bisects the feature from north to south. The NJ Transit rail line from Hoboken to Lyndhurst is on the right. The tall structure to the left of the transmission tower is part of the draw bridge which allows trains to cross the Hackensack River. The Manhattan skyline can be seen in the distance on the left. The water directly to the right of the rails, and only a few feet lower than the rail bed, is part of the Hackensack River. The storm surge from Hurricane Sandy flooded the Meadowlands including all the rail lines crossing it.

Photo of NJ Meadowlands where I-95 crosses NJ Transit Rail line
View of Meadowlands where I-95 crosses NJ Transit rail line from Hoboken to Lyndhurst

Another view of the New Jersey Meadowlands looking east across marsh water and beyond it, the Hackensack River (center).

Photo of New Jersey Meadowlands seen from
New Jersey Meadowlands looking east from I-95 Highway. Manhattan skyline in distance

 

The light at the end of the tunnel

My last post titled, ‘Help! The Hudson River Rail Tunnel is falling to bits’, elicited this question:

Is the tunnel as straight as the map suggests?

Map showing route of Hudson River Rail Tunnel from North Bergen, NJ to Penn Station, NYC
Map showing route of Hudson River Rail Tunnel from North Bergen, NJ to Penn Station, NYC. Image from Draft Environmental Statement, June 30, 2017; Hudson Tunnel Project.

The answer is yes, it is in reality as straight as a die, at least in plan view. tunneling is a costly business; the least expensive way to dig a tunnel is to keep it absolutely straight. The following YouTube video created by Konstantin Gorakine titled, ‘Tunnel ride under Hudson River to Penn Station, NYC’, will convince you. It convinced me.

You’re a visitor and you want to experience ‘authentic’ New York City life. To the millions of people who live and/or work in the city, there’s nothing more ‘real’ than the daily commute. About one hundred thousand commuters pour into the city through the Hudson River Rail Tunnel every weekday. And that’s just one of the entry points. Get a feel for what it’s like; take the same train ride. But there’s no need to punish yourself; avoid the rush hours.

The NJ Transit train ride from Penn Station, NYC to Penn Station, Newark, NY, makes for an enjoyable excursion — about 20 minutes travel time, each way. If you leave at about 10:30 in the morning, you can be back by noon. Navigating Penn Station is an authentic New York experience in itself.

Map showing location of Penn Sta., NYC in relation to Penn Sta., Newark andNorth Bergen Tunnel portal
Map showing locations of Penn Sta.,NYC, North Bergen Tunnel portal, and Penn Sta., Newark, NJ

Help! The Hudson River Rail Tunnel is falling to bits.

A few days ago, New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, accompanied by a film crew, paid a late night visit to the Hudson River Rail Tunnel. His objective was to publicize the sorry state of the tunnel’s physical condition, and to thereby convince the Trump  administration that federal funding is urgently needed to help finance the construction of replacement tunnels. The New York Times called it a Hollywood stunt “ . . . designed solely to win over an audience of [the] one who sits in the Oval Office.” True or not, Governor Cuomo’s efforts should be applauded. It’s encouraging to see a politician up to his elbows in honest dirt rather than mucking about in the sort politician’s usually wallow in. And apart from that, he does an excellent job of pointing out the tunnels’s defeciencies. Listen to Governor Cuomo’s exposé on the following YouTube video and decide for yourself:

The tunnel (actually a pair of single-track tunnels), presently operates at or above capacity. About 450 trains pass through the tunnels each weekday (averaging one train every six minutes) carrying about 100,000 New Jersey commuters (plus Amtrack passengers) to Manhattan in the morning and back to NJ in the evening. Whenever the tunnel is shut down, those citizens have no other practical way to get to work because the tunnels and bridges for road and subway traffic are also at capacity.

Map showing route of Hudson River Rail Tunnel from North Bergen, NJ to Penn Station, NYC
Map showing route of Hudson River Rail Tunnel from North Bergen, NJ to Penn Station, NYC

The 14,575 foot tunnel has been in use for 108 years and shows it. The flooding that occurred during hurricane Sandy in 2012, entered the tunnel through the portals at its eastern (Manhattan) end. As Governor Cuomo points out in his video, the corrosion caused by salt water has intensified the deterioration within the tunnel. In view of his other comments concerning, rotted steel, crumbling cement, exposed rebar, damaged electrical gear, leaking walls, it’s fair to wonder about risk to human life. Are the tunnels in danger of collapse?

The experts say no. Here’s why:

The tunnel was driven through solid rock except were it passes under the river through accumulated silt. That’s where it proved necessary to construct the tunnel using 23 foot diameter, cast iron rings, each weighing 22 tons. The 2.5 foot wide rings were bolted together, one after the other, to form the two tubes running under the river. The seams between the rings were caulked to make the tubes watertight. The tubes were then lined with concrete. The structural integrity of the tunnel depends on the cast iron shells, not on the crumbling concrete that lines them. That said, if the deterioration inside the tunnel continues to worsen, it will eventually become impossible for trains to pass through it.

The next image shows one of the cast iron rings used to construct part of the Hudson River Rail Tunnel. It was one of the exhibits at the 1907 Jamestown Exposition.

Cast Iron Tunnel Ring exhibited at 1907 Jamestown Exposition